Despite mass antiwar rallies in the United States over the weekend, a recent poll shows that two out of three Americans support the U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Some experts say that trend is not likely to change over the next two weeks, despite the possibility of mounting U.S. casualties. They say the duration of the conflict and the U.S. presence in postwar Iraq are seen as more significant factors in forming U.S. public opinion.
New York, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the mass antiwar rally in New York over the past weekend tried to walk a fine line between expressing their disapproval of the U.S. military operation in Iraq and voicing support for U.S. troops engaged in the battle.
Some of the protesters said they were aware that now that coalition troops are inside Iraq, it will not be a simple matter for them to pull out.
Peter Reed, a 45-year-old architect from Manhattan, told RFE/RL that war is the wrong way to resolve the U.S. administration's opposition to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "There are a lot of other leaders of countries that are ghastly people, and it would be very nice to get rid of them too, but you can't just unilaterally say 'We don't like the leader of your country, so we're going to go take them out,'" Reed said.
Some of those interviewed say that going to war is a miscalculation and that diplomatic options for bringing Saddam Hussein to account still remain. Kayla, a 17-year-old high school student from Manhattan, told RFE/RL she thinks the decision to attack Iraq was a hasty one. "I think there wasn't really an attempt at diplomacy, and I think that until I feel like they are fully exhausted -- I mean diplomatic ways -- there shouldn't be a war. I just think there should be other ways to it. I think the UN could have been a little more involved and I think humanitarian aid and more diplomatic means could have been used, like negotiations. I just feel that it was all very sudden and not thought out," she said.
Antiwar sentiment continues to be heard around the world. But some public policy experts say that in the United States, it is unlikely support for the military action in Iraq will flag anytime soon.
Carroll Doherty, an editor with the Pew Research Center, an independent opinion research group, told RFE/RL that after the 11 September terrorist attacks, Americans may be more prepared to accept U.S. casualties in Iraq. "[Support for U.S. President Bush] is still very strong. The question we are looking into is what is going to happen when people really begin to focus on the casualties and things like that. We don't know what is going to happen to public opinion if there is a continued high rate of casualties. Is the public really prepared for mass casualties? There's just no way to tell at this point. On the one hand, the public is not used to a high rate of casualties, but on the other hand 11 September changed some attitudes in some ways and there may be more tolerance now," Doherty said.
Loss of life of U.S. service people in military operations is generally considered to be one of the strongest factors in shifting public opinion. But some experts say that for the next two weeks, U.S. casualties -- as long as they stay relatively low -- will not significantly affect the American public's stance on the war. Rajan Menon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, told RFE/RL that the duration of the conflict will have more influence on public opinion.
"The duration in which the casualties occur [will be more important]. In other words, if this is a war that goes on -- which I don't think it will -- for months at a time, and the casualties mount, I think that one will see divisions not within the Republican Party but certainly [within] the Democratic Party, [with Democrats] speaking out, people in the Congress speaking out, and public opinion not turning against the war, but the degree of enthusiasm declining. If there is a [significant] loss of life, which there will be in the next couple of weeks, I don't think the poll numbers are going to change dramatically because there will be a sense that however horrible the bloodshed is, it will be brought to an end quickly," Menon said.
Doherty from the Pew Research Center echoed Menon's sentiment. He said he thinks it is the duration of the conflict that matters, and the number of casualties goes hand-in-hand with the duration. "Going into this war, people were thinking -- based on what they've heard from the [Bush] administration -- that it would be fairly simple, with quick prospects for finishing it up," he says. "And I think if it drags on for three months, four months, maybe even shorter than that -- then you could see erosion of public support," Doherty said.
Menon of the Council on Foreign Relations told RFE/RL that a prolonged occupation of Iraq by coalition forces will have a much stronger influence on U.S. public opinion than anything else. "Much more likely, however, [to change public opinion] is what happens after the war. And I think a long, drawn-out occupation of Iraq that proves costly, and where we become seen by the Iraqi people not anymore as liberators but as occupiers -- that, I think, will have much more profound effect on the public opinion here," Menon said.
According to a weekend U.S. poll (CNN/USA Today/Gallup), 71 percent of Americans approve of the way President George W. Bush is doing his job. Some 21 percent disapprove and 4 percent are undecided.